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Oswald Boateng's Savile Row designs endow Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, and Keanu Reeves with high style. Now Boateng hopes his business talents will give sub-Saharan Africa both economic opportunity and environmental relief

It would appear that Boateng has smoothly moved from point A to point B in a straight line, having achieved success, wealth, and recognition all before the watershed age of 40. Yet the African in him knows that individual, commercial success is but one part of the journey. The more meaningful part is using your success and recognition to help the people in whom you are rooted by giving back to a motherland sorely in need. Which is what brought Ozwald Boateng to New York City one hot day last summer. Looking cool, chic, and even chivalrous in white jeans and a stunning, impeccably tailored lime-green shirt— one of his own Bespoke designs— Boateng sits relaxed and regal in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel talking about his latest venture, Human Energy, a tree-planting project in Africa being undertaken in partnership with the Himalayan Institute. Tree planting? "It's very outside my world," the designer admits. Yet the economic development potential of the project for his homeland has him sounding as excited as a fledgling designer getting ready to launch his first collection.

Africa's litany of woes and ravages is long and complex, and not lost on the hundreds of thousands of first- and second-generation Africans born and raised in Europe. "There are a lot of us in my generation who realize we have some obligations to our roots," says Boateng, explaining that among young, prosperous African Europeans like himself, sending money "back home" has long been "the cultural thing to do. We have an obligation to help others have a better life." This is why he and two friends formed the Made in Africa Trust (MIA), a for-profit venture for developing projects in Africa, including Human Energy, that will help create wealth and economic self-sufficiency.

Now enter the Biofuel Rural Development Initiative launched by the Himalayan Institute in partnership with Roshini Biotech in southern India in 2003. South India, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, is largely poor, rural, and farm dependent, with millions of acres of land laid to ruin by desertification, drought, and pestilence.
The goal of the Rural Development Initiative was not only to address the pressing needs of these rural communities (farmers here had the highest suicide rates in the country), but also to enable them to find lasting ways to become self-sufficient. The solution lay in the pongamia tree. Remarkably, this indigenous tree can grow on the most barren ground, and is impervious to drought, with dark, green leaves that retain moisture in even the most intense heat. It is also insect-resistant and repellent to grazing livestock.

The best part of the tree, however, are the seeds, which contain an oil that is easily processed into environmentally safe biofuel. Not only is the seed a source of fuel for diesel engines and the generators that are the main source of electricity in rural areas, but once the oil has been extracted, the seedcake is a source of biogas, organic fertilizer, and cattle feed. As the spectacular success of the South Indian project has shown, the income-generating and life-sustaining potential to be derived from planting pongamia trees in underdeveloped countries could prove revolutionary.

But can this project be successfully transplanted to the African continent? Boateng is betting that it can, though when one of his MIA partners, Chris Cleverly, a former London barrister with roots in Sierra Leone, first approached him about teaming with the Himalayan Institute to develop a pongamia tree project in Ghana and Uganda similar to the one in India, Boateng just laughed. "I said, ‘What are you talking about? Trees that will create biofuels?' It may sound funny now, but this is the future, you know."

The beauty of farming pongamia trees in poorer countries, says Boateng, is the diversity of economic opportunity that such an undertaking provides. "We're talking about the creation of jobs, doing something environmentally safe, and planting trees that are actually good for the land." Boateng is also talking about the potential for harvesting a wealth-creating product that could finally liberate Africa from its debilitating dependency on foreign aid. "I'm sure this is possible," he says. "My partners and I want to be a part of creating the right types of development in Africa that really benefit the people."

Excerpt from Yoga + Joyful Living magazine
Nov-Dec 2006
By Audrey Edwards

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